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Europe

In French elections, clashing visions of Muslim identity

The fledgling Union of French Muslim Democrats faces an uphill struggle in Sunday's regional elections. The party emphasizes that it wants to get young Muslims involved in the political process.

Khalid Majid and his team stride past piles of napkins, shirts and plastic watches at the weekly market in Montreuil, scouting not for good deals but for votes.

On a frigid morning, he pushes fliers at a clutch of men selling clothes. "Our children live in France, our lives are here," he tells them, as one nods in agreement. "We must also have our say - not just as Muslims but as French."

Majid works as a manager at the SNCF rail company. But he's becoming known these days as president of the fledgling Union of French Muslim Democrats (UDMF), which is making its first run in French regional elections on Sunday.

The first round of polling comes at a difficult time for France as the country emerges from its second wave of terrorist attacks in less than a year. With a state of emergency in force and mounting fears of radical Islam, polls have shown the far-right National Front party is surging on a

law-and-order, anti-immigrant platform.

For its part, the three-year-old UDMF hopes to counter a rising tide of Islamophobia and give France's 5-million strong Muslims a greater political voice.

Muslim youth need to get involved

These clashing visions of Islam and politics are captured in ethnic working class suburbs around Paris, where the National Front has put up posters bearing two faces of a single woman - one wearing a ski cap and country's national colors and the other in a niqab - with the tagline: "Choose your suburb."

"Islam and the banlieues have become the center of the political debate," says Alexandre Piettre, a sociologist at the GSRL, or Societies, Religions and Secularity Group, a Paris-based research organization. "It's normal that a population that always feels itself stigmatized searches for a way express itself. That's the electorate the UDMF is tapping."

The party is campaigning in the Ile de France region around Paris. It doesn't expect to win many votes. Just getting Muslims to the polls, especially young Muslims, counts as an initial success.

"They need to be involved," Majid says. "If they don't play a role today, they will have a lot of people who will build laws against them. We've seen it in France these last years."

Many UDMF candidates, like Majid, are solidly middle class and upwardly mobile. Half are women, and many don't wear veils. The party is campaigning on bread-and-butter issues like education, jobs and the environment, with platforms similar to other leftist French parties. But it's also weighed in on areas, like repealing a school veil ban, that strike a special chord among Muslims.

'We're not like them'

In Montreuil, an ethnically mixed town next to Paris, Majid chats with 28-year-old mother Ferroudja Ghersbousbele about school cafeterias, a hot-button issue after some right-wing mayors banned pork substitutes. The UDMF wants a vegetarian option. "That's secularism," he tells her.

Frankreich vor den Kommunalwahlen

Majid discussed the UDMF platform with Ghersbousbele

"When I was a kid, we lived normally, we didn't categorize different religions," says Ghersbousbele, who doesn't wear a headscarf but supports women's right to choose whether they want to. "Now they're trying to isolate us, to put us in a group."

Especially after the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, for which "Islamic State" has claimed responsibility, she says she believes Muslim politicians can a play a role "in showing that we're not like them."

Outsiders' political staying power

The UDMF officially embraces French secularity and does not define itself as a Muslim party. Still, it is one of several parties that, with little success so far, have attempted to identify with and advocate for Muslims across Europe. Political movements have cropped up in the Netherlands and Britain with little backing or lifespan. In Alsace, a Muslim party founded in 1997 similarly petered out.

Sociologist Piettre believes the UDMF is surfing on a larger sense of Muslim identity that has been gathering steam across Europe.

"It's a kind of assertion of citizenship, and the UDMF fits into this dynamic," he says, especially in France, where many Muslims feel discriminated against.

While the party's score in the regional elections is likely to be negligible, it could "nibble" off some gains in immigrant-heavy communities, Piettre says, and build enough support over time to strike alliances with other political parties.

"The fact they embrace their attachment to secularism and the French Republic can help in de-demonizing Muslims," he adds. "As these people appear in the media and get better known, they'll be seen in a different way."

Stoking the flames or bridging the divide?

But the opposite may also happen. The party tried running for local elections after the first Paris attacks earlier this year, but withdrew amid mounting Islamophobia, including threats to some members.

Frankreich Schweigeminute nach Terroranschlägen in Paris

Muslims also took part in memorials for victims of the terrorist attacks

Today, other analysts believe the UDMF may further stigmatize a Muslim population that mostly wants to fit in.

"If French Muslims want to be heard, they have to join traditional parties," says Elyamine Settoul, a researcher at the Paris Institute for Political Studies, who believes the UDMF will remain marginal in French politics.

At the National Front's office in Paris, Wallerand de Saint Just goes further, claiming the party is stoking divisions.

"The difficulty with Islam is it puts religious law ahead of civil law," says Saint Just, who is heading the Front's ticket for the Ile de France region. "To run for elections in this religious, sectarian fashion is not acceptable."

But UDMF candidates counter that they can help bridge divides, not widen them. Shortly after the Paris attacks,

many marked a moment of silence for the victims

at the city's Place de la Republique, then spent time to talking to people about their platform.

"I can only say good luck to them," says Parisian George Zahui, who is not Muslim. "But it's not going to be easy."

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